Last weekend, I attended the 2012 CFI Student Leadership Conference in Buffalo, New York with my fellow Secular Student Alliance intern, Ellen Lundgren.
I want to tell you about the talks themselves, but even more so, I want you to understand why it’s so important for student leaders to attend these conferences.
It’s about a 6-hour drive from Columbus, so we left right after work last Wednesday, and listened to lots of Fiona Apple’s newest album along the way.
The two CFI summer interns (one of whom, Tony Lakey, is actually also the president of my student group back in Missouri) were kind enough to let us stay with them the first night, and we had a lot of fun playing chess and eating veggie chik’n nuggets.
Over the following three days, I reconnected with some great people I had not seen in person since the conference last year, and others that I saw at the SSA conference last summer as well. These are some of the brightest people I have ever known, and some of the best critical thinkers. The best part is, they are also creative rule-breakers when it comes to thinking. This is especially relevant for the workshops, when we do brainstorming activities.
If you’ve never been to Niagara Falls, it’s astonishing. There is something about very large things that makes you feel—well, small. It changes your perspective to look at something like that. Part of me says, “It’s water & rocks… okay…” But when you realize how quickly those water & rocks could kill you—not to anthropomorphize, but without a pause or care, and that they have been going for about 11,000 years—it makes you feel very awed. A group of us went on Thursday afternoon while everyone was trickling in for the first talks on Thursday evening.
That night, there was a welcome toast, a presentation about what exactly CFI does by Lauren Becker, a talk about the past, present, and future of CFI by the wonderful Debbie Goddard, a panel about CFI’s history, and Jessica Ahlquist also gave her talk. You can see the full schedule here.
I’m actually not going to talk much more about the talks themselves. The videos will be online soon, as I understand it, and I’m going to leave that to other bloggers. I want you to understand what’s so important about actually attending these conferences in person.
The friends I have made by physically attending the CFI conferences last year (my first) and this year are some of the most important and close people in my life, even though for many of them, I have only seen them in person once or twice. If you have ever been on a retreat or to summer camp or anything like that, you know what I mean. Spending 84 hours straight without someone—sharing your meals, living with them, hanging out at night—is going to make you close. In fact, for the last night, many of us didn’t even bother sleeping, since our sleep schedules were so backwards by then. Half the fun of conferences is staying up half (or all) night, talking about your backgrounds, learning what other groups are doing, getting to know each other, but more just getting to that place of understanding that there are other atheists just like you. It may not feel like we’re the majority, and in many places, we’re not. But for our generation, roughly 1/3 of people say it is false that they never doubt the existence of a god. These figures are growing rapidly, and with a passion. It’s becoming harder and harder for young people to believe whatever their parents tell them, because young people are no longer being brought up in isolation from the rest of the world, thanks to things like Wikipedia, Reddit, Facebook, even blogs like this one.
I waited a year to come out of the closet as an atheist because I didn’t know anyone else who was openly an atheist. I was dumbstruck when I first met someone who had no problem saying the word. In her case, she was not an activist about it; she was more what I’d call an apatheist, or a pragmatic atheist. But that moment was life-changing for me: Knowing that it was possible to call oneself an atheist, without feeling ashamed, was inspiring.
And that is how I feel about attending conferences. An entire audience full of people who feel that way, learning how to run their student groups more efficiently and effectively, and getting to know each other. One of the people I’d consider among my best friends, Ellen (the founder of this blog), is someone whom I met at the CFI conference last year, for example. Her work with her group at Grand Valley State University has been inspiring to my group at Mizzou, as well. And now we are interning together for the Secular Student Alliance, which is a dream come true for both of us. The best part is, there are literally dozens of people I could have used as examples in this paragraph of great friends I have made, who are very dear to me. I felt so very lonely for so long as a closeted atheist, and it is a feeling I do not feel anymore. Maybe this is revealing of what a bad writer I am but I can’t tell you in words how grateful of my circumstances I am to be freed of that. Life is better now!
If you are a student and an atheist, and you have never attended a student leadership conference, you simply MUST do so. Today (Sunday) is the last chance to register for the Secular Student Alliance annual leadership conference on July 6-8 in Columbus, OH. Please, please register! You will be so glad you attended, I can’t even tell you. And if that’s not enough for you, you can also attend Skepticon 5, the largest free conference ever, in Springfield, Missouri on November 9-11.
I’m just going to wrap this up with some more pictures from Buffalo, because I took a lot, and I think they can say it better than I can. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!
And last but not least, one of my favorite photos from the weekend…
See you at the SSA conference next weekend, and at CFI next year!